The most successful technique for finding planets in other star systems is known as the transit method. Astronomers watch for a star to fade a tiny bit as a planet passes in front of it. The method finds planets only in star systems with the right geometry. Even so, it’s yielded thousands of discoveries.

And it doesn’t require big telescopes to work. In fact, small telescopes are better for the job. They can watch a larger patch of sky, improving the odds of seeing a transit. And astronomers have built networks of small telescopes just for transit observations.

One that’s just getting rolling uses off-the-shelf cameras and lenses. And it’s designed for the public to participate. Using instructions provided by the project, volunteers can set up their own units for about $5,000.

PANOPTES got started in 2010, with a single camera in Hawaii. Project leaders tested the design. They also worked out ways to control the network, collect and process the observations, and make the data available to others.

Today, about a dozen PANOPTES units are under construction in the U.S. and other countries. And the goal is to add about 10 per year. They’ll be built around the world, providing coverage of the entire sky.

The project plans to support a planet-hunting space telescope known as TESS. PANOPTES observations can help confirm TESS discoveries and provide more information about the planets — big science from little packages.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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